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What the Military Can Teach Business Leaders

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Shutterstock / StockPhotosLV

By Gerard Seijts

During a well-deserved study break early one muggy morning last summer, an exhausted crew of students from Western University's Ivey Business School forgot to put out a tray of bacon while serving breakfast to hungry instructors giving them a course on leadership.

No big deal, right? That's what the forgetful breakfast detail thought -- but not for long. After all, this was not your grandfather's business school program. Offered in partnership with the Canadian military, Ivey's "Leadership Under Fire: Developing Character" takes students outside their comfort zones to put their character to the test.

Instructors are a team of business professors, entrepreneurs and officer training experts. And the soldiers include experienced boot camp instructors. These self-proclaimed "morale vampires" saw the missing bacon as a failure in the attention-to-detail department. So after the break, they systematically sucked the spirit out of the class known as Ivey Platoon as it tackled physical and mental challenges designed to expose their strengths and weaknesses in both leading and following positions.

While the course includes presentations by both military and business leaders, the focus is on task-oriented problem solving in stressful and uncertain contexts. Each student enrolled in Leadership Under Fire is divided into units with military mentors, then assigned ranks and expected to effectively perform as a team member while facing various challenges, ranging from building survival shelters to clearing a minefield.

In the field for three gruelling days, students experience stress, physical fatigue and sleep deprivation as professional soldiers constantly push them to work together while demanding cleanliness, discipline and respect. There is no downtime from learning, which is why something simple like forgetting to serve bacon quickly turns into a hard lesson on the importance of attention to detail.

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The program, of course, isn't about providing students with a boot camp experience. It's about developing self-awareness.

The need to stress test balance sheets of financial institutions is generally accepted as a prudent form of risk management. So it makes sense to test the character of managers of organizations where leadership plays a major role in determining success or failure. Better yet, why not give business students a chance to assess themselves before they accept the significant responsibilities that come with managing organizations in today's challenging environment?

As an Ivey Business Journal article on the program recently noted, good leaders learn from experience. But as Ivey research into the root causes of the financial crisis clearly showed, too many leaders fail to become aware of their limitations and blind spots until a lot of damage has been done. Egos and greed also conspire to create poor leaders, who can cripple businesses, ruin economies and destroy families, not to mention nations.

Keep in mind that being good at leadership requires much more than competencies -- it also requires commitment and good leadership character. But while business schools have done an admirable job of researching and teaching the competencies that are deemed essential for individual and organizational success, the importance of leadership character and commitment as cornerstones in the development of the next generation of business leaders has been largely ignored, which is why Ivey is committed to the development of all three. And that is the goal of Leadership Under Fire. The physical side of the course is merely a vehicle to help students to reflect on their own character and developmental needs. Feedback on performance from faculty and military personnel plus peer evaluations on the student's leadership and follower skills provides each participant with a roadmap for personal improvement. This requires students to be open to constructive criticism that in many cases they did not expect or want to hear.

Why partner with the military? One of the foundations of good leadership is the ability to accomplish a task by influencing other people. To do that, however, a leader must be able to assess a situation, develop a plan, issue clear instructions and then supervise execution. And unlike the management skills required to run businesses, teaching someone to do this isn't something that can be done in a typical classroom, where business students never directly experience the challenges involved in issuing instructions and managing plan execution, especially under duress.

Leadership Under Fire was conceived as a solution to this dilemma by two Canadian entrepreneurs with military backgrounds -- Toronto-based consultant John Mercer, a former captain and personal assistant to the commander of the Canadian Army, and Chapters founder Larry Stevenson, now managing director with Toronto's Callisto Capital. They approached Ivey with the idea of combining business education with elements of the Basic Officer Training Course, which teaches the basics of leadership to every officer in the Canadian Forces before they move on to more advanced training.

Our troops have long had a reputation for being well disciplined, highly effective and well led, which is why the level of trust and confidence in the Canadian Forces ranks high amongst institutions in this country. And the wisdom accumulated by successive generations of Canadian military leaders represents an underutilized Canadian competitive advantage. The development of business school courses that tap into this knowledge was overdue.

Gerard Seijts is a Professor of Organizational Behaviour, holds the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Chair in Leadership, and is Executive Director of the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute of Leadership at Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. He can be reached at gseijts@ivey.uwo.ca.